Nearly 240 years ago, as the United States of America teetered on the brink of sovereignty, an ardent liberty-loving city-state known as the Republic of Ragusa became one of the very first to formally recognize America’s independence from Great Britain.
More familiarly known today as Old Town in Dubrovnik, this tiny, late-medieval walled oasis set like a jewel on the Adriatic Sea on the Dalmatian Coast, was a center of trade, arts and culture that once rivaled Venice. In fact, this Mediterranean fairy tale town is called “the pearl of the Adriatic.”
The walls encircle most of the city as it juts into the sea and meanders back toward the Pile Gate on terra firma like an irregularly shaped polygon. They stretch about 6,365 feet in length and reach about 80 feet high in some places. There are more than a dozen towers, several forts, six bastions or bulwarks and two corner forts. You’ll spot several turrets, multiple moats – even a couple drawbridges.
To say that Old Town’s protected perch would forestall surprise attacks and invasions is a given; however, one enemy did breach the walls, but it was by means of not honoring his word – or the republic’s freedom philosophy – when he was allowed behind the gates. That was double-crossing Napoléon Bonaparte, who subjugated the people in 1806 .
Now part of Croatia, Dubrovnik’s Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is as exquisite today as it was in the seventh century when the walls first began going up. It is a living history museum whose paved streets duck and curve into a maze of narrow alleyways where visitors are as likely to happen upon a sweet little cafe as encounter a stone staircase leading up, up and up. At the top of this steep climb? A chance to walk along the battlements to drink in some of the most breathtaking views of land and sea you’ll catch anywhere.
Within the walls are monuments, museums, churches and convents, the architecture showing off medieval, Renaissance and Baroque design. You can stroll the city, dipping into historic structures including Dubrovnik Cathedral, rebuilt after an earthquake in 1667; the Cultural History Museum, housed in the Rector’s Palace and filled with period furniture and costumes plus a sophisticated gift shop; the Baroque-style St. Blaise Church (St. Blaise is the patron saint of Dubrovnik); the wonderfully ornate St. Ignatius Church; the Bell Tower; and the Customs Palace.
On the streets of Old Town, you may run into a street artist painted gold and standing still as a statue, a man offering a photo op with a parrot or even the bustling Green Market in full swing. You’ll find lots of shops crowded together, offering Croatian wines, designer clothing and fine jewelry, candles, masks, paintings by local artists, souvenirs and – this being Dubrovnik – ties.
The necktie actually originated in Croatia, evolving from the kerchiefs women would tie round their husband’s or son’s neck back in the day when they went off to war. This, in turn, spawned the cravat, derived from the expression, “a la Croate,” (in the Croatian manner), which led to the French word, “cravate,” and – so many generations and design developments later – the modern tie. Croatian ties are known for their top-quality silk fabrics and classic and contemporary design patterns.
And restaurants? They’re all over the city, and the best plan-of-action is to simply follow your nose from cafe to bistro to pub to sushi bar, perusing the posted menus and keeping an eye peeled for an empty table. Eat fresh oysters at Bota, located near the cathedral, or taste-test Dalmatian cuisine prepared with heritage recipes of Dubrovnik fishermen at Proto, a fish restaurant that has been scoped out by actor Richard Gere and one of the “James Bonds” (Sir Roger Moore).
Old Town is a place where flowers and greenery lend color and a sense of wildness to the symmetry of this stone fortress; where clothing is strung outside windows and across balconies to dry in the breeze blowing in from the sea; where a terracotta roof-scape colors the skyline; and where the barring of autos keeps the 21st century noise of honking horns, skidding wheels and slamming doors, thankfully, outside the walls.